The Big Interview with Jesper Eis Eriksen, Executive Director of the OBEL AWARD

In the next of Seratech’s Big Interview series, we speak to Jesper Eis Eriksen about the OBEL AWARD's 'different approach' and what it takes to impress the jury

BY Natasha Higgins-Schjelderup

11/23/20233 min read

In 2022 Seratech won the OBEL AWARD for its carbon capture technology. It was a big win for Seratech founders Sam Draper and Barney Shanks who would receive €100,000 to help push forward their newly patented idea. One year on, we speak to Jesper Eis Eriksen, executive director of the Henrik Frode OBEL Foundation to find out exactly what lies at the heart of this organisation and how the jury chooses its annual winner.

When Seratech got a call from the Henrik Frode OBEL Foundation last year to say it had won the OBEL AWARD the team was delighted. “The whole thing was pretty surreal,” recalls Sam Draper, CEO of Seratech. “We were nominated for the award and had a couple of calls and interviews with Jesper. Once we were shortlisted, Jesper and a few of the jury and board came to Imperial College to meet us and see our technology in action”. At the winning ceremony in Denmark, the jury praised Seratech’s process for having the potential to reduce embodied emissions globally and support the future of low carbon construction.

The OBEL AWARD jury is always looking out for trends and challenges within the built environment.

“The OBEL AWARD is different to other architectural awards,” explains Jesper who heads up the day-to-day business. “We focus on all different actors within the built environment as we believe that anyone who can make a real difference through positive change is worthy of our prize. We’ve had winning projects with themes ranging from urbanisation to adaptation to emissions. Our jury is always looking for trends and challenges within the built environment”.

The OBEL AWARD is in its fifth year running and operates from headquarters in Copenhagen. As Jesper will have you know, the organisation is run in a ‘Scandinavian way’. For example, the jury’s approach in selecting a winning theme is rooted in informality, open conversation, and acceptance of all points of view and suggestions. Once decided on an idea, Jesper’s team “reach out to experts around the world” to scan for potential projects.

The words ‘global’ and ‘holistic’ come up frequently throughout the course of our discussion. Embracing the planet in its entirety is very much part of the OBEL team’s philosophy. Jesper suggests this stems from philanthropist and OBEL AWARD founder Henrik Frode Obel’s experience of having lived all over the world and across four continents.

Embracing the planet in its entirety is very much part of the OBEL team’s philosophy.

Henrik’s story, as Jesper describes it, begins with being born into an old Danish industrialist and philanthropic family before moving abroad and becoming a successful businessman in his own right. With no apparent heir, Henrik wanted to leave his wealth to a foundation in his name and felt that architecture and the built environment was “something we all have in common” and that “we could learn from each other by employing an international outlook”.

And so, the Henrik Frode OBEL Foundation was born. Jesper joined in 2018 taking on the role of executive director, and a distinguished jury panel formed consisting of Kjetil Trædal Thorsen, co-founder of Norwegian firm Snøhetta, Danish architect Louis Becker, Global Design Principal and Partner at Henning Larsen, German philosopher Wilhelm Vossenkuhl, and chaired by American landscape architect and Harvard professor Martha Schwartz. “Although we are a small organisation, we have grown considerably in five years and we’re here to stay,” remarks Jesper.

We can provide seed money to help put the wheels into motion into causes we believe to be worthwhile.

“Needless to say, we will never be the biggest funder because we’re a very small foundation. But we might very well be the first. We are proud to be able to provide seed money to help put the wheels into motion for causes we believe to be worthwhile and hopefully start a global debate”.

With Seratech, the jury quickly saw the potential in Sam and Barney’s discovery. They liked the fact that it was a carbon capture technology which was adaptable and replicable on a large scale. Jesper believes that although Seratech’s solution does not solve the problem, “it does buy us time to finding ways of doing things better when it comes to construction”.

At the time of speaking to Jesper, the OBEL team have just returned from Sydney where they hosted this year’s OBEL AWARD prize giving ceremony. The winner was Scape Studio in a move described by Jesper as “courageous on the part of the jury”. The theme was adaptation and the winning project ‘Living Breakwaters’ looks at nature as a design collaborator to help deal with the effects of climate change. Working with the water rather than against it.

In a closing statement, Jesper likens the state of play within the built environment to traditional American square dancing where everyone dances in unison, but nobody takes the lead: “Cities are there forever and have been around almost forever. I’d like to see architects take on more of an advisory role, take the lead a bit more and start advising the different actors on what needs to be done.

“We all need to do our bit to combat climate crisis and we’re at a time of great transition,” he concludes.

Jesper Eis Eriksen, Executive Director of the Henrik Frode Obel Foundation